The introduction, which is uncredited but sounds like the work of the Fultons, is a quick gloss of the historical position that women writers inhabited; to put it in a short phrase, a very bad position. It also discusses the introduction of hangul, and how that introduction created a small opening for female authors and how, then, modernization and colonialization, that began to pry that small opening wide open. This was by no means an easy process, as women were intentionally defined as “yoryu chakka,” or women writers (there were even sub-categories to this taxonomy, and the early history of even slightly successful female writers was not good (A good book that looks more closely at this period is the collection “Questioning Minds” which traces the arc of female writers from 1917 to the present). In the 1970s the damn finally collapsed, and it is from that era that this collection begins.
The theme in Wayfarer is alienation, and the theme is hammered on.
Almaden, by Kim Chiweon joins that short list of Korean fiction sited overseas, telling the story of an unhappy married woman who clerks at her families’ liquor store. She engages in an imaginary affair with a customer who is quite, quite distant from her husband. The routine of marriage has driven love from the couple’s relationship, but an imaginary relationship brings no relief in the end.
Ch’oe Yun’s The Last of Hanako is a great story, which has been translated elsewhere in a Jimoondang / LTI Korea (and is being translated yet again in the ASIA Modern Fiction Bilingual Edition – I often wonder why the compulsion to translate and retranslate the same works; to me it makes the literature seem small?). A middle-aged man (known only as “he”), unhappy with his life, is in Venice partly in search of Jang Jin-ja, who had once served as something like muse to ‘him’ and his group of male friends. Jang was nicknamed “Hanako” (“one nose”) only after she had been expelled from the group of friends, and her real name was never spoken by them again. Hanako is an outsider who works her way in, and while her differences are cherished for a while, eventually the (male) society kicks back with cruel force. There are some extremely well written scenes including the expulsion scene, which well portrays the some-times forced nature of the Korean drinking scene (often inextricable from the larger Korean social scene). There is a big “reveal” about Hanako’s life (which I will not spoil), which the average western reader will probably figure out after 10 pages of reading. But this is a really good story.
Human Decency by Gong Ji Young is one of the smaller works in the book as it is parochially Korean, pitting a facilely “international” character against a “true Korean hero” who has stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. The narrator is self-tortured by her own history and has a quite obvious loathing for all things foreign. All this adds up to a work highlighting han and Korean exceptionalism of the simplest kind.
Human Decency is also relentlessly nostalgic. In the present all the “true” rebels are dead or sold out – a convenient Manicheism that is often used in literature; kill a few rebels so they can never be seen turning into businessmen or spaghetti salespeople.
Scarlett Fingernails by Kim Min-suk, is a touching and interesting story of a wife who wants to temporarily leave her family to go see her father on the occasion of his 61st birthday, which will also be the date of his release from prison. This is complicated by the fact that her husband is unhappy that she will go, and her mother is quite upset and has basically given up on her husband. When the mother tells the story of the father she basically says he wasn’t a spy – he returned to see his family, but when captured wouldn’t confess and recant his redness – the mother also says she won’t divorce him so he can keep his family up North safe, in essence, he can’t recant his Redness for fear of repercussions to them. The mother sends down some food and clothing for the dad. The family guilt by association may seem strange to a western reader, but of course it is a Korean tradition of long provenance (as the life of Kim Satkat, the “Rainhat Poet” demonstrates). The story has dual surprise endings, and although it deals with alienation, it also demonstrates a remarkably resilient family.
Dear Distant Love by Seo Yeong-eun begins with Mun-ja, an “old maid” in a publishing firm where younger employees come and go and despise/pity her. For no immediately apparent reason, she seems content, above it, even thinking she has fooled her co-workers. She is confident she can live through anything, but on this day she must raise money from her aunt. She has a rather feckless lover with whom she share a long and tangled history, and she seems willing to put up with almost any slight or difficulty with an air of brave optimism, in a way reminiscent of Na Hye-seok’s Kyeonghui. This is an interesting take on one approach to life and love.
Identical Apartments, by Pak Wan-so tells the tale, through the eyes of a married daughter, of an extremely extended family living in one large apartment. Somehow the wife has focused on the indignity of having to listen for her husband ringing the doorbell. Finally, they move into their own apateu. The wife befriends the woman across the way and apes her style and learns to cook from her. Soon, the narrator is unhappy again, for a long list of things, and to my eye this story is more about someone who is perpetually unhappy (the hatred of doorbell, for instance, conveniently morphs into a hatred of the peephole at the new apartment). Pak’s point appears to be commodification and progress create clones; however, really, in the villages, who was the iconoclast? As the narrator comes to hate everything for which there is a duplicate her attitude seems to be a form of clinical depression or klonosphobia (a word I just created from Greek roots!), and that substantially dulls Pak’s point. There is some clever writing, and a rather nifty plot turn at the end, but this was still a bit draggy for me.
The Flowering of Our Lives by Kong Seon-ok is written in interior monologue and the narrator comes off as super-hyper or slightly schizophrenic. This is not doubt intentional, but it makes reading the text something like sitting next to the crazy dude on the bus who rambles on about various conspiracies. The story is also stuffed with rhetorical questions, a familiar rhetorical approach in Korea speech, but difficult to navigate on the page. The story wanders between the narrator’s relationship with her mother, and the narrator’s relationship with her own daughter, as well as two female friends, one of the past and one of the present. The narrator describes herself as a “rebel” (although her rebellions seem quite quotidian) due to her “distress.” The whole point of it is the narrator’s essential question about herself, “What is it that distresses me?” But answers are never forthcoming, and the story ends on a random note.
This may be a failing of my gender, as the introduction notes, the story is:
Striking. The narrator of that story is perhaps the most complex character in this anthology. In turns indignant, despairing, sad, brazen and sympathetic, she has begun to come to terms with her contradictory impulses. Here is a vivid example of the sensibility of Korean women writers of the 1990s. More than any of the other stories in this volume, this one is for and about women.
For me, there was never any indication of “coming to terms” with anything, and the mood-shifts seemed random.
Wayfarer by O Chong-hui is the wonderful/horrific story of Hye-ja, a recently divorced woman left alone in a house. Told semi-surrealistically (compare to the previous story this works really well) it begins in a way that reminds me a bit of The Wings, with a confused narrator living in a semi-dream state. The reasons for this state are unpeeled like an onion. The storytelling is delicate and Hye-ja’s psychology is well explored and although her mental states change, the changes seem organic throughout. With several brutal twists, the story winds to an end with the essential unfairness of Hye-ja’s plight revealed and Hye-ja returned, with quite different meaning, to the image that opened the story. This is a brilliant story of the burdens place on women by Korean society, and worth the price of the book alone.